20 Signs of A Psychopath: Recognize Their Toxic Traits

“Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom.” – Robert Hare

Psychopaths aren’t rare. They form around 1% of the general population.

Surprisingly, up to 3% of business managers, and up to 25% of the prisoners have psychopathic traits.

Knowing the 20 signs of a psychopath can help you keep a safe distance from them.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder marked by insensitivity, “fear blindness,” and disinhibited, antisocial behavior. They will willfully harm you because it gives them a sense of control and pleasure.

The cruel part is they can often predict the serious consequences of their actions, and still not give a hoot about the hurt they will cause.

twenty signs of a psychopath
(Photo by cottonbro studio, Pexels)

20 Signs of A Psychopath (To Recognize Them)

Knowing and understanding the psychopath’s typical behavior patterns can help to protect yourself, and consult a mental health expert for support if they have victimized you.

Here are 20 key signs to help identify a psychopath:

1. Disdain For Social Norms, Shallow Emotions, & Coldness

The hallmark traits of a psychopath: no rules, no guilt, no shame.

  • Have a persistent disregard for social norms and a blatant readiness to violate the rules.
  • Known for their cold, callous behavior and lack of guilt when doing the wrong things.
  • Have a striking lack of remorse for the repercussions of that behavior.

Psychopaths have a limited range of emotions, appearing detached or indifferent in highly emotional situations. While others are sad, anxious, or excited, the psychopath appears cold and unaffected.

They may, however, feel some regret and dejection, indicating that they can react emotionally.

Research shows psychopathic persons can feel bad about their choices, but still do not use these feelings to make better future choices. So, even WHEN they know their actions are harmful, they do not use this knowledge to change their behavior (Baskin-Sommers, 2016).

2. Violent Tendencies And Criminal Versatility

Not all psychopaths are aggressive, but some may show physical or verbal aggression.

  • Pronounced irritability, simmering rage, outbursts, physical aggression.
  • Uses anger to manipulate and control others.
  • Repeatedly engages violent acts.

This hints at their inability to regulate their emotional responses. Which could explain their lack of self-reflection or understanding of their own condition.

A psychopath can adapt to various situations and use ingenious tactics to trap and harm others. 15% to 25% of prison inmates show psychopathic characteristics (Burton & Saleh, 2020).

They have been found involved in some of the most cruel, violent, and heinous acts in society.

The presence of psychopathic traits can predict future violent and sexually violent crimes with up to 80% accuracy.

Real-life example: Charles Manson, a notorious cult leader and social deviant, orchestrated a series of brutal murders (including Hollywood celebrities) by manipulating his followers.

3. Problematic Childhood

Psychopathy is more likely to develop in children who display conduct disorder with callous-unemotional (CU) traits.

  • Early signs of psychopathy often manifest in childhood as bad conduct or other antisocial behaviors.
  • These children are cruel to animals, bully their peers, steal from others, cheat, and pick up fights.

Most psychopaths have a history of conduct disorder by the age of 15, and the worst ones may have first behavioral issues before their 10th birthday.

Real-life example: Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer exhibited signs of conduct disorder in his childhood, including cruelty to animals and an obsession with death.

4. Failure to Form Genuine Relationships

Psychopaths are dishonest and will deceive without hesitation or fear. Even if their partner warns them after finding their cheating, they will cheat again.

  • They have difficulty forming deep emotional connections.
  • Their relationships are exploitative and self-serving.
  • String of unstable or short-lived relationships.

It is hard to find them in long-term marriages (except in cultures where arranged marriage and life-long partnerships are the norm).

Psychopaths tend to dominate their relationships, making their long-term partners feel caged and dependent on them.

Usually, they may frequently jump from one relationship to another, discarding partners when they no longer serve a purpose.

Their trail of broken relationships can be traced to their emotional coldness, lack of empathy, cheating nature, and ability to use and hurt people guiltlessly.

Do psychopaths know that they are psychopaths?

5. Manipulation And Exploitation

Psychopaths are skilled manipulators who take advantage of others for personal gain without remorse.

  • Skilled at manipulating others for personal gain.
  • Uses charm, deceit, and intimidation to achieve goals.
  • Exploits all their relationships and takes advantage of trust.

They are pathological liars and trust abusers, always ready to pounce on other people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

Real-life example: Bernie Madoff, a convicted financial fraudster, manipulated and exploited investors for years, resulting in one of the largest financial scandals in history.

6. Lack of Empathy

Psychopaths lack emotional empathy and compassion.

  • Lack of guilt, remorse, or shame.
  • Mimics emotions to blend in with others.
  • Difficulty understanding and feeling emotions.

This lack of empathy makes them resistant to genuinely care about others’ feelings or well-being.

It also keeps them from feeling bad about hurting others. A psychopath may not feel any sorrow or regret after betraying a close friend or family member.

They are, however, good at mimicking empathy, compassion, and kindness to get things done. They can even fake remorse and regret.

Real-life example: Frank Abagnale, portrayed in the film “Catch Me If You Can,” was a master of deception and impersonation, mimicking his way into many high-profile positions.

7. Lack of Guilt or Remorse

Psychopaths do not experience guilt or remorse for their actions, even when they harm others.

  • Blames others and makes excuses.
  • Rarely takes responsibility for actions.
  • Lack of morals, conscience, and empathy.

They have a low capacity for introspection and self-evaluation.

This could be due to their inherent callous and detached nature, which stops them from controlling their destructive behavior even if they understand the after-effects of their actions.

They lack conscientiousness and this makes them lie and cheat guilt-free.

Even when a psychopath harms someone, they are often unaffected by what happens to them because of their actions. When cornered, they will rather try to escape, attack, or plot revenge.

This makes them highly dangerous because they will repeat what they have done before (called recidivism or return to crime) whether they receive pardon or punishment.

8. Need For Control & Authority

Psychopaths often crave power, control, and dominance, seeking positions of authority to manipulate and exploit others.

  • Seeks positions of power and authority
  • Hunger for power and control over others
  • Overlap with narcissism and Machiavellianism

They are skilled in self-image management, and can come across as charismatic people with charming mannerisms, most noted in women psychopaths.

They are experts at social smiles, fake concerns, empty empathy, and flowery flattery. Unfortunately, all this activity is the nicest part of their controlling game.

9. Impulsivity, High-Risk Behavior, No Fear of Consequences

Psychopaths may act impulsively and recklessly, disregarding potential consequences or the well-being of others.

  • Engages in dangerous or harmful behavior
  • Poor impulse control and decision-making
  • May act on a whim without considering the consequences

They are prone to thrill-seeking and risky behaviors, including criminal activity, substance abuse, and sexual promiscuity.

They do not fear that they might be caught in their act.

This “fear-blindness” is mostly because the areas of their brains linked to fear responses, impulse control, and righteous decision-making do not function as well as in normal people.

Real-life example: Andrew Cunanan, a spree killer, displayed impulsive behavior, committing multiple high-profile murders in a short period of time.

10. Mean Streak of Behavior

Of course, they are unreliable and irresponsible people, who do not keep their promises and commitments. Worse is their meanness.

  • Sadistic enjoyment of the pain and suffering of others
  • Their sadistic streak can be sexual or non-sexual in nature
  • It is a strong predictor of violent and sexually violent crimes

Psychopaths can not just abandon you when you need their help, they can even kick you down the hole.

Once they know they have charmed you, or they get over your “usability,” they will treat you to growing degrees of cruelty. They may fiercely degrade and humiliate their victims in public.

Real-life example: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, known as the Moors Murderers, took pleasure in torturing and killing their victims.

11. Narcissistic Tendencies

Psychopaths may display excessive self-love and a sense of entitlement, believing they deserve special treatment and admiration.

  • Exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Believes they are superior to others
  • Desires admiration and adulation

They will often enforce their victims to praise them, and even punish them for not kowtowing to their whims and fantasies.

When they are invited, they demand the finest treatment (which is narcissistic entitlement), and if they are not, they will start a violent spate of acts and fights without regard for anyone else (which is psychopathic callousness).

They also often have a grandiose sense of self-worth (grandiosity), believing they are superior to others and entitled to special privileges, much like narcissists.

Real-life example: Joseph Stalin, former leader of the Soviet Union, displayed psychopathic traits, including a grandiose sense of self and an obsession with maintaining power and control.

12. Social Deviance And Abnormal Thinking

Psychopaths are known to engage in antisocial and deviant behavior, such as crime, vandalism, and other acts that violate societal norms.

  • Repeatedly engages in acts that violate social norms
  • Poor anger management and impulse control
  • Acts against the well-being of others

Their brains are seemingly wired in a way that they can find it funny or joyful to treat others with utmost cruelty.

Even their threats and criticism can be of satanic nature. They can tell you things like, “I will burn your grave.”

13. Superficial Charm & Appeal

Psychopaths are often charming and persuasive, using their charisma to manipulate others.

  • Highly persuasive and engaging
  • Skilled at faking prosocial behaviors
  • Charm eventually wears off, revealing coldness or cruelty

They excel at mimicking empathy, kindness, and concern, but this facade usually fades over time, revealing their true, colder nature.

Real-life example: Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer, was known for his charm and good looks, which allowed him to gain the trust of his victims.

14. Parasitic Lifestyle

Psychopaths may rely on others for financial support or resources, exploiting their generosity and kindness.

  • Relies on others for financial support or resources
  • Exploits others’ generosity and kindness
  • Unwilling to contribute or reciprocate

Real-life example: Paul John Knowles, also known as the Casanova Killer, displayed a parasitic lifestyle by relying on others for his needs, often stealing from his victims.

15. Lack of Commitments & Attachments

Psychopaths struggle to form deep, meaningful connections with others, often maintaining superficial relationships based on manipulation and deceit.

  • Unreliable and unpredictable
  • Fears being tied down or restricted
  • Avoids long-term relationships and obligations

A psychopath may avoid committing to a job, romantic relationship, or friendship due to a fear of being controlled or losing their freedom.

16. Frequent Job Changes or Unemployment

A psychopathic individual may change jobs frequently or struggle to hold down a job due to their inability to form genuine relationships and their need for control.

  • Difficulty maintaining stable employment
  • Frequent job changes or periods of unemployment
  • Often works in positions of power or control

17. Hostile & Antagonistic

Psychopaths often have a hidden aggressive side.

  • Can pretend to be friendly, kind, and charming temporarily
  • Tend to hold racist, sexist, or misogynistic views
  • Treat people in hostile or unkind ways

They are often argumentative and combative, frequently seeking conflict and confrontation.

18. Lack of Long-Term Goals

Psychopaths may lack clear, long-term goals or plans, instead focusing on immediate gratification and short-term gains.

They have trouble planning for the future and following through on duties and commitments. Their inability to form stable connections or pursue long-term objectives contributes to their erratic and destructive behavior.

  • Tendency to live in the present moment, disregarding future consequences
  • Inability to maintain stable employment or relationships
  • Frequent changes in residence or personal circumstances

Real-life example: Andrew Cunanan, a spree killer who murdered five people, including fashion designer Gianni Versace, in 1997, displayed a lack of long-term goals. He lived a transient lifestyle, moving from place to place and engaging in various short-term relationships.

19. Poor Behavioral Controls

Psychopaths may struggle to control their behavior, often lashing out in anger, frustration, or aggression.

They struggle to adhere to social norms and expectations, and find it hard to put up good behavior for long periods of time.

  • Difficulty managing anger and frustration
  • Frequent outbursts of aggression or violence
  • Impulsive and reckless decision-making

20. Sexual Promiscuity

Psychopaths may engage in reckless and impulsive sexual behavior, often being promiscuous, and disregarding the feelings and well-being of their partners.

  • Tendency to have multiple sexual partners
  • Manipulate others for sexual gratification
  • May engage in high-risk sexual behaviors

Real-life example: Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer, was known for his sexual promiscuity and manipulation of women. He used his charm and good looks to lure victims, ultimately leading to the brutal murders of at least 30 young women during the 1970s.

Final Words

Remember, the information presented here should not be used to diagnose or treat anyone.

Recognizing these signs can help prevent falling victim to a psychopath’s manipulation and deceit.

Not every individual displaying these traits is a psychopath. These signs should be considered as a whole, rather than focusing on one or two isolated traits.

Psychopathy exists on a spectrum, and only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose this personality disorder. If you believe someone you know may be a psychopath, seek professional advice from a mental health expert.

However, understanding these 20 key signs of a psychopath can help protect oneself from potential harm and maintain healthy relationships.

As author and former FBI profiler Joe Navarro said, “To live among predators, one must know and respect them.”


Here is a list of resources consulted while writing this article:

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Author Bio: Researched and reviewed by Sandip Roy — a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher, who writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism). He has been working with individuals and their families affected by psychopathy and narcissism for over a decade.

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